QUICK UPDATE

Well it’s been a little while since I’ve posted something but there is a good reason for that.. well… two… well you’ll see.

First off is Norway! Yup. Winter people, real Winter. It’s not even here yet and I’m already suffering a bit. The temperature is dropping steadily and the first snow has started falling, it’s snowing right now actually. Up until now I’ve been living in a place with 40degree celsius Summers and Winters that dip below zero sometimes but always after daytime temperatures around the 20’s and 30’s. Now I get to look forward to -20’s I hear.
Take the black! Man the wall!

I wasn’t kidding when I said that starting over in a new country is hard. My job right now is delivering newspapers at 2AM in the morning come rain or snow and that can be tough. Now there’s also the added element of the sun going down around 4PM to confuse my body. It’s all very exciting and I love it to be honest but adjusting to it all can leave a person really tired.

Secondly I’ve been offered a job back in Africa for a few months that I have to take. I am a cameraman and editor and soon I will go back to the desert to make a documentary on cheetah! It’s a big deal and will help me get somewhere in Norway after I get back. The problem is that for this job I will be living in a tent in the bush for weeks at a time. Because of this I doubt that I will be able to get much practice playing STG’s.
I do look forward to posting some pictures of shmup gaming in front of elephants and lions though!

So I’m shifting this blog a bit. From here on out I will be concentrating mostly on handheld games with RPG’s featuring heavily in addition to shmups. I will be doing this because I love both genres and because in a way they complement each other perfectly. One genre is built mainly around story telling while the other is built completely around gameplay. I think there will be some interesting comparisons to be made. Hell, some games in the past have even combined the two genres in spectacular fashion.
Oh! Handheld gaming also perfectly fits in with the middle-of-nowhere lifestyle I will be embracing in 2013.

Well I guess that’s about all i have to say really.

I hope this post finds you all brilliantly happy and entertained.

wds

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SHORT STORIES / MINIATURE BULLET HELL

“Short stories do not say this happened and this happened and this happened. They are a microcosm and a magnification rather than a linear progression.” – Isobelle Carmody

Of course this also means more scrutiny. Even the smallest crack becomes a chasm when it is magnified. When I started studying film our lecturer gave us an assignment. It was simple, “Make a 5 minute movie.” Piece of cake, I thought arrogantly. This’ll be a breeze, walk in the park, easy as pie. You can guess what happened next. That little assignment kicked my ass. Turns out it was harder to come up with a worthwhile narrative that was 5 minutes long than it was to think of something four times that. It’s one of the lessons I’ve never forgotten to this day. Short stories are like that. Underestimate them and they will destroy you.

When I started writing I attempted short stories first just like everyone else. The stories themselves weren’t terrible, but they weren’t great either. It takes experience and hard work to write a truly gripping short tale. I’m talking about stores like I, Robot by Isaac AsimovDagon by H.P. Lovecraft, A Telltale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe,  The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving and The Lottery by Shirley Jackson.

There is the possibility that you have not read these stories, but I will wager that you’ve at least heard of them. Have you seen Battle Royale? No? What about The Hunger Games? You could draw a straight line from them to The Lottery without much difficulty at all. This is the power of a well written short story. It may be small in volume but its potential for growth is almost limitless.

On Monday this week I finally downloaded Aa Mujou Setsuna (or Metal Torrent as it’s known in the West)  by game developer/publisher Arika. If you know shmups then you know Arika. They’ve been involved in a bunch of Cave stalwarts, DoDonPachi Dai Jai Ou and community darling Ketsui amongst these. Arika also brought Ketsui Death Label to the DS and of course Metal Torrent to DSiware.

There are a fair amount of decent shooters on the DS and 3DS so far. Ketsui Death Label, Metal Torrent, Liberation Maiden, Space Invaders Extreme, Retro Game Challenge’Cosmic Gate and Bangoi-O Spirits (by the monolithic entity known as Treasure) are all available on one version of Nintendo’s little handheld or another. Old NES classics such as Gradius, TwinBee and Xevious have all been released on the eshop as of late allowing for some bullet dodging on the go. For those of you who like manic shooters there are only two options though and not surprisingly they’re brought to us by the Cave / Arika combo.

“Short fiction seems more targeted – hand grenades of ideas, if you will. When they work, they hit, they explode, and you never forget them.” – Paolo Bacigalupi

I’ve poured hours into Ketsui Death Label and still the beast living in that little cartridge demands more. It’s basically just a boss rush mode of Ketsui but does that make it bad? No not at all, not to me at least. Finding a review of Ketsui Death Label on the net is tricky. Vertical shooters simply do not command the same amount of interest here in the West as they do over in the East, and something like Ketsui Death Label even less so. It’s seen as a cop-out by many because they wanted a port of the original. Look around a bit and you’ll find one or two reviews worth your time but that’s about it. I love Ketsui Death Label for what it is; a scaled down version of the original that I can delve into whenever and wherever I want. It isn’t a DS port of the original arcade game but that’s ok since that exists on other systems more suitable for it. That doesn’t mean that this DS version of Ketsui doesn’t have content. Play hard and long enough and you’ll unlock extra difficulties, each one more brutal than the last. There’s even and Extra mode which lets you play through a single complete stage. Be warned though. It will eat you alive.

“My short stories are like soft shadows I have set out in the world, faint footprints I have left. I remember exactly where I set down each and every one of them, and how I felt when I did. Short stories are like guideposts to my heart…” – Haruki Murakami.

I think of these games as short stories. They aren’t fully fledged novels but rather snippets, things that may never be whole. You could call them footprints left in a forest somewhere, shadows as Murakamiputs it. They are, in short, glimpses into the minds of their creators. Photographs which hold a fragment of creative thought captured and looped forever.

“A short story is a different thing all together – a short story is like a kiss in the dark from a stranger.” – Stephen King, Skeleton Crew.

It’s true that Ketsui Death Label and Metal Torrent may seem one dimensional to some people and I get that. If you look at the games as full-fledged releases they fail. Are we meant to look at them in this way? I don’t think so. These games are centered and built around a single, specific gameplay mechanic. Poe‘s comment on short stories hits the mark perfectly:

“A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.” – Edgar Alan Poe

When viewed in this light both Ketsui Death Label and Metal Torrent exist and succeed perfectly.

BATTLE BAKRAID! THE CHOSEN!

After reading up on the rank system  of Battle Garegga I decided to try out Battle Bakraid. I’d never played this game before and knew next to nothing about it. So full of doubt I fired it up and decided to see what all the fuss is about.

Battle Bakraid is a game by 8ing and is the sequel to Battle Garegga. The game itself isn’t very much like its predecessor as described in Malc‘s review. I shouldn’t go into details about the differences as I haven’t clocked enough hours on Battle Garegga to have a valid opinion yet. One change is easy to see and anyone who’s played a bit of both should spot this difference immediately. The graphics instantly tell you that these games are related but the biggest plus point for me is that the bullets have been changed. In Battle Garegga I struggle because I have to collect medals, shoot enemies, keep an eye on rank and dodge bullets. This is made difficult because the bullets are slim and hard to see. Half the time I die is because a bullet I never even saw hit my ship full on. I can appreciate that it makes things more realistic and thus harder but I’m honestly just not at that level yet. I’m not knocking Battle Garegga at all. I’m admitting that I don’t have what it takes to manage all the game requires yet.

I truly love Battle Bakraid. There is so much to it. The game oozes options from the mode select menu to the huge amount of fighter planes. Just selecting your ship with a different button each time will change the way it reacts in battle fundamentally.

Then there’s the medal, scoring and rank systems to consider.  There just seems to be so much to this game. So much to read about and try out. It will take time to perfect the layers of complexity in this game but damnit I really want to commit to it. Battle Bakraid is easy to get into but hard as nails to masters but I’m just so into it.

From here on out I will be bending all my attention towards 8ing‘s brilliant little shooter. This is the game I want to 1CC frist but I want more than that. I want to get good at the game. I want to learn it inside out and learn the techniques needed to attain a killer score.

A played Battle Bakraid seriously for about an hour today and this is what I’ve achieved. It’s nothing great and the score is laughable but that will change soon enough!

The first steps

SIDEQUEST 01 : RANKING SYSTEMS

Once again there is no quarter given and not a shred of mercy shown.

I’ve been looking at some STG’s lately in the hopes of finding something to practice on. Mainly I’m looking for a game that I can play on the side, something not by Cave. OK I’ll be honest… I’ve been looking for something a little easier to start with! If Ketsui is my main quest, then I want something a little more light-hearted to be my lover on the side. Something relaxed and distracting. There are a few candidates for this, games I’ve spotted around the net and on random forums. I’ve tried a bunch by now and was starting to get worried. Why can I make it to stage 3 on one credit in DonPachi when I die all the time playing games like Battle Garegga, Shienryu and Strikers 1945? I think I would have gone mad if I hadn’t stumbled across a great review of Shienryu over at Edward’s 1CC Log for Shmups. It was here that I read about rank management for the first time. I’d seen the term in other places before of course, but I’d never thought much about it. Turns out I should have.

 I followed a link on Edward’s blog to a review of Daioh by shmupper called Battletoad and continued from there across forums and blogs as if following a digital grapevine. Slowly understanding dawned on me. One glance at the strategy section for Battle Garegga over on the Shmups! forum told me all I needed to know. I’d been going about it all wrong. I’d been holding the fire button down and dodging bullets for all I was worth. Looking for something a little less manic in terms of the labyrinthine bullet patterns of Cave games I’d found something else, something decidedly unsettling. Here was intelligence, even thought perhaps. In the code behind the detailed and inviting graphics something lived, pacing to-and-fro in the gingerbread house. That something wasn’t very nice either. It watched you from behind the shiny reflection of the screen, greedily caressing your fingertips from beneath the buttons. Battle Garegga sneers at your feeble efforts at fame and wants nothing more than to bring you to your knees.

I think I may have flinched a bit when I realised just how many things affect your rank. I tried to find something less bullet heavy and succeeded in finding something far more manic in a totally different way. Not passive, as bullet patterns mostly are, but active and constantly evolving. Not only was it menacing, it had teeth.

Scratch the surface and you’ll be amazed how many shooters employ some sort of rank system. Few are as psychotic as Battle Garegga though. In my mind the AI trapped in 8ing/Raizing’s shooter has the cold calculating voice of HAL from A Space Odyssey 2001.

I would have simply put this damned thing in my rear-view mirror if the game itself wasn’t so incredibly fun. I can understand why this particular shmup has such a devoted following within the community. Just have a look at the list of TV tropes attributed to Battle Garegga for instance. You can feel that there’s something special about the game just by looking around the internet randomly. This is perhaps why I hate the game a little. I wanted to find something easy and fleeting and what did I end up with? I fell in love with a game that would need even more attention and hard work! It’s like dating a girl who’s really terrible for you. You know this, yet for some ungodly reason that you’ll never understand, you simply keep at it.

You drift, a slave to every sweetly torturous moment.

 

 

SELECT PILOT!

 

“Battles that last five minutes spawn legends that live a thousand years.” – Stephen King, The Dark Tower

 

About two weeks ago I woke up and felt the soft pulse of restless frustration I’d been feeling every day for a few months. Today I’ll write at least five pages, I promised myself.

Five pages may seem like nothing to most people reading this, unless of course they’ve ever tried to seriously write a novel. It’s strange how just about anything can become terrifying simply because you’ve decided to take it seriously. A lot can happen in five pages. The world can end in five pages. Hell, it could end in less than one.

 

Writing, to me, is about discipline and perseverance. I can find dozens of excuses on any given day to justify why I didn’t write one sentence, couldn’t write a single word. Excuses are easy to find. Motivations on the other hand, are sly beasts. I used to obsess about every sentence, every line, every damned character twitch in my stories. It got to the point where writing a short story took me months. It was maddening. It was a form of OCD so developed that I could hardly put pen to paper for fear of the process that would follow.

Then I read a quote by Iain Banks which allowed me to take a step back and breathe. Of course what he said seems obvious now, but things feel very complicated when you’re intimately close to them.

 

“Writing is like everything else: the more you do it the better you get. Don’t try to perfect as you go along, just get to the end of the damn thing. Accept imperfections. Get it finished and then you can go back. If you try to polish every sentence there’s a chance you’ll never get past the first chapter.”– Iain Banks.

 

So following this advice I’m finally making progress on something that should have been completed two years ago.

 

What struck me recently is how applicable this advice is to playing vertical shooters or shmups, as they’re also known.  Not all of the quote of course, but the feel of it. It’s the same as the first time I read the sentence “Don’t be afraid to use your bombs regularly” in a review of Mahou Daisukusen by Malc. Until reading that I’d ben hoarding bombs as if they were the entire point of the games.

 

Shmups have become my personal form of martial arts, my Mount Wudang if you will, with Cave as my shifu. Martial arts instill discipline in one’s mind through physical and mental exertion and concentration. You need that discipline and balance in order to gain a bit more control of your life. I know this because I watch about 110 kung fu movies every week! Don’t argue!

 

Together with renewed motivation in writing I have taken my first steps towards one credit clearing my first Cave shooter. It seems an impossible task right now to be honest and I’m filled with doubt as to whether I can even do it. I haven’t played a lot of shmups in my life but they’ve always held a special place in my heart. I’m 30 years old and this in itself seem to be a bit too late (if I listen to all the younger gamers out there).

The thing is that vertical shooters take dedication and discipline. You will not beat a shmup on your first attempt if you aren’t familiar with the genre. Fact.

 

You may wonder why I chose Cave as the mountain I must climb. The answer is simple. I played Dodonpachi at a friends house once upon a time and it blew me away, quite literally. Since then I’ve had an eye on the company and follow their works keenly. I’m not a Cave elitist though. I’m a huge fan of G.Rev, Treasure, Raizing and a lot of other companies too.

 

 

 

“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.” – Confucius, Confucius: The Analects

 

It’s while playing shmups that it started to dawn on me how many similarities there are between the quest to 1CC a shmup and the quest to write something with substance. That realisation is what lead to the creation of this blog. It is here where I plan to document my struggles and triumphs. So to start it all of I thought I’d talk about some novels and how they resonate with my shmup experiences.

 

There are three literary characters I love which come to mind immediately when I think about explaining this journey. Roland Deschain, Alonso Quijano and K; from The Dark Tower, Don Quixote and The Castle respectively. 

These characters have one thing in common, they’re all entwined in seemingly impossible quests. There is something they feel they must do no matter what the cost. Other people might think they are insane, and perhaps they are, but that is of little consequence. They continue onwards, ever onwards.

 

“Willpower and dedication are good words. There’s a bad one, though, that means the same thing. That one is obsession.”– Stephen King, The Dark Tower

 

In Stephen King’s series we follow Roland Deschain of Gillead, the last gunslinger, on a perilous path towards the titular Dark Tower. He has been questing for hundreds of years and has lost and sacrificed countless people on the way. He is the solitary anti-hero with unmatched, almost mythical, skills. That’s how I feel when I play games like Dodonpachi, Battle Garegga or Ketsui. I feel like I’m the gunslinger, standing alone against insurmountable odds. I could give up my quest and live out my days in peace but I will not, can not. There is no one else who will stand against the threat now before me. Failure is not an option.

 

 

“By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.”– Franz Kafka

 

Facing those hellish patterns makes me feel like a hero! I’m just a normal guy who sucks at these games in general and dies all the time during the second stage of Ketsui, but I believe that I can do it! 

It is this insane and deluded belief that is mirrored by the character of Alonso Quijano in Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes. The aging retiree has read so many novels about heroism that he starts to believe in them as fact. He adopts the name of Don Quixote and sets out to revive chivalry and become a knight. In his distorted mind, every day inn’s are castles, cloaked monks are enchanters and windmills stand as terrible giants! 

 

Is this not what I have done in adopting a gamers nickname? Not many people I know play games under their own names. Everyone picks a name they like, something personal for the most part. They strike out under these monikers every day and do battle in fantastical worlds! We are a horde of Don Quixote’s out to become knights of the modern age.

The world of knights is part of a dead and archaic world of course. The world we live in is that of McDonalds and Starbucks, not dragons and honour. Many people do not see the excitement of that forgotten age. The same can be said for shmups. I’ve met countless people who look down on the genre. With a look of disgust on their lips and a cold sneer they turn away saying things like “The graphics are so dated…” or “It’s too one dimensional and they’re all the same anyways. Play one and you’ve played them all.”

Then they walk over to the couch and power up the latest first person shooter. You know the one. It’s plastered all over the front page of every gaming website on the internet. Don’t even get me started on RPG’s. I love the genre to a fault but I swear that I’d trade in my balls for just one ounce less hand holding.

 

Take Ocarina of Time for instance. It’s heralded as one of the best games on the planet! It’s genius and yet that damned fairy will insist on treating you as if your brain was made of some soft sponge, an incontinent one at that.

 

“I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century and among those who are still men.” – H.P. Lovecraft, The Outsider

 

Modern games are there to remind you that your mother will never think of you as being older than five. A shmup is that awesome uncle or aunt who let you stay up late and watch Predator 2 when you were ten, because you told him you could handle it. Of course Predator 2 ended up terrifying the living hell out of you and a game like Dodonpachi Dai Jou Ou will leave you for dead at the roadside. Reality can be a brutal teacher and it loves cocky little bastards. You always feel OK though, no matter how many times you  fail. You feel OK because you made the decision to face these things and know it.

 

 

“Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them.” – Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote

 

This fantasy of being capable of anything, this madness I suffer from, sometimes cracks and falls victim to self-doubt. What if I’m too old to be playing games? What if playing shmups is stupid? What if I will never succeed in a 1CC?

Thinking this way reminds me of Franz Kafka’s novel, The Castle. In this story the protagonist (known simply as K.) struggles to gain access to a castle in which mysterious authorities reside. This story is about the pursuit of an unobtainable goal. The frustration of seemingly futile and hopeless attempts at a quest. Throughout the tale K is stuck in the village below the castle. He is at the foot of his goal. It is right in front of him! Yet he cannot get to it no matter how hard he tries. This is exactly how I feel some days when I try to clear a stage of Ketsui without dying. It feels impossible! It makes me want bang my head against the screen until the glass or my skull, I don’t care which, breaks. But then there is hope, and hope as we all know, is the last thing to die.

 

 

“If you are going through hell, keep going.” – Winston Churchill

 

Kafka passed away before finishing The Castle but suggested that the novel might end with K. dying in the village without ever reaching his goal. It’s dark and it’s crushing because it’s so horribly believable. This is what fills me with fear and doubt. There is the real possibility that I will never 1CC a game. It is when I’m at my most frustrated that I know I could try and try and try… and fail. At times like this I just stare at the bullets. I don’t see them but I know they’re there, filling the screen. Then hope sparks up once more deep inside my heart and I feed the machine another coin.

 

The games know I will return and are content to wait patiently. They think they’ll remain victorious forever but I know better.

 

“Let evil wait for the day on which it must fall.” – Stephen King, The Dark Tower.

 

Come Rocinante let us ride, for the tower and the high score.

 

 

 

 

NEVER GIVE UP, NEVER SURRENDER!

 

I was playing Espgaluda yesterday when my girlfriend asked a simple question. The question she asked was asked so matter of factly that I just stared at her.  Ageha of course took a bullet straight to the face.. poor bastard.

 

Let me just say that I really love Espgaluda. There’s just something about it. I’m not talking about the music or the graphics now, although I could easily go on about them for hours. I just love the game. I love the simplicity of the scoring system and how much fun it all is.

 

I’m no expert at it yet, but it goes something like this:

 

Hitting the B lets you enter Kakusei mode. In this mode time is slowed. You know this because all bullets turn purple and a counter around your character gradually decreases. Destroy the enemy who fired the bullets on screen and all of them turn into gold! Exit Kakusei mode again and wait for some other jerk to fire a bunch of bullets at you. Enter Kakusei. Destroy the jerks. Bathe in gold. Repeat.

 

There’s a lot more to it but that’s it in essence. There’s a multiplier and the guard barrier etc but I wont go into that now.

 

I was happily flying about blasting every enemy foolish enough to fire more than three bullets at me. Watching with glee as the multiplier kept increasing a warm feeling grew inside me. There’s something about watching a screen full of bullets turn to gold that gets the heart pumping!

 

So from the side my girlfriend, who was staring at the screen, suddenly asked:

 

“Are there shops in the game? No? What’s the point of earning all that money if you can’t spend it on anything?”

 

There was no mocking tone or malice in her voice. She simply didn’t get it. I was dumbstruck. I hadn’t thought about it at all.

I thought for a moment then replied.

It isn’t about that,” I said. “It’s about getting the highest score you can and then trying to improve upon it. It’s about going as far as you can on one credit and starting over if you die.”

 

That’s when it struck me. This is what I love about shmups. There aren’t any achievements or other meaningless things to unlock. Not really. You don’t play a shmup for that reason. You play it because you want to get better at it. You want to improve. That’s what makes it beautiful. It’s gaming in its purest form. Gaming for gaming’s sake.

When you die you know it’s because you messed up. You respect the developers as you would respect a worthy adversary. When you somehow avoid a wave of bullets only to be killed by a single bullet headed straight for your hiding place you know. You know the developers outplayed you. You salute them, make a mental note, then try again.

I actually once found myself laughing out loud and yelling “You clever bastard! Next time I’ll get you! I swear it.”

 

I have a long way to go before I 1CC my first shmup. No doubt about it. There’s a long road ahead of me. I will continue though, because on the day I make it I’ll know that I did it. On my own, because I refused to give up.

 

It will be a great day indeed.